p. While two data-gathering robots continue roaming Mars, a West Virginia University researcher is preparing for a later unmanned mission to the red planet.

Tom Meloy, a Benedum Professor in the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, has been pegged as a lead scientist for a National Aeronautics and Space Administration mission in 2007. The Phoenix project involves sending an unmanned chemical laboratory to Mars.

We want to put a sophisticated �€~wetchemistry lab on board, with a robotic arm that will scrape up soil and put it in a container,Meloy said.We will inject water into the container, stir the mixture and use the latest technology to measure it for various ions.

Those various ions include sulfate, chloride, sulfide and nitrate, Meloy said.

But the most sought-after ion, he noted, will be carbon, the stuff of life.

Discovering evidence that Mars once contained water capable of sustaining life is the purpose of the Mars missions.

The rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in January, have found such signs. Opportunity has discovered evidence that a shallow body of salty water once coated the planets Meridiani Planum region. Spirit, meanwhile, has come across material that appears to be minerals crystallized out of water in a volcanic rock in Gusev Crater.

Single-cell life arises wherever there is liquid water,Meloy explained.Its got to be liquid water. It cant be ice. Most scientists agree there was liquid water and single-cell life on Mars. We will be looking for signs of liquid water and proof there was carbon in the water.

Finding life on Mars could have long-term implications for life on Earth, Meloy said. For instance, Martian life reproduced in a Petri dish might possess genes that could be instrumental in curing human diseases or protecting agricultural plants from parasites.

Meloy, whose research interests include planetary surfaces and particles, has had a long association with NASA . In the 1960s, he accurately predicted the size of particles on the moon before the first object from Earth arrived there. He was the lead scientist on the 2001 MECA Mars lander mission, but NASA canceled the project after the Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander missions failed.

Each summer he works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. JPL , managed by California Institute of Technology, does robotic exploration of the solar system for NASA .

His other scientific endeavors through the years include heading the engineering directorate of the National Science Foundation; overseeing industrial research for the Environmental Protection Agency; co-founding Meloy Laboratories, a contract research firm in Fairfax County, Va.; and working as senior staff scientist at Allis Chalmers in Milwaukee.

He has an undergraduate degree in physics from Harvard University and a doctorate in material science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Meloy will be in his late 80s when the 2007 Mars mission gets under way.

Ironically, Meloy and his wife, Gisela, moved to Morgantown 27 years ago after he was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition. The diagnosis turned out to be false.

I thought I had a short time to live, and WVU offered me a Benedum professorship for life,he said.

Meloy, whose wife died seven years ago, has made the most of his time here.

Out of the blue, I will get an idea, then follow up that idea,he said.It isnt supposed to be that way at my age.